Thursday, December 2, 2010

A mirror held to nature

From the moment you walk into the tiny Havana Theatre space you know this is not your grandmother's Hamlet. Some of the seats in the alley-shaped room hold actors, costumed but conversing with patrons as if they too are there to discover a story. And in a way, I guess, they are. When player Kat Gauthier steps forward to address the audience, the lilting iambic pentameter that soon reveals itself as a clever self-deprecating front-of-house speech confirms your status as comrades on a journey. The warmth of her eyes and the smile dancing at the corners of her mouth offer a welcome as intimate and irresistible as an embrace.

It is an apt beginning.

I have seen Hamlet before; several times in fact. The first was a professional production viewed by my grade 12 English class. While the teacher Mr. Lee can be credited with sparking my interest in Shakespeare and this play, the production was most memorable for the number of paper airplanes disrespectful high schoolers sailed onto the stage in response to the four hour production. Other versions over the years had more to recommend them. But none has moved me like this one.

An ambitious venture by the cleverly-named Honest Fishmonger's Equity Co-op, the production features recent graduates of several of the city's theatre training programs (Kat Gauthier is from TWU), alongside established theatre professionals like David Bloom (Claudius)and Simon Webb (Polonius). Directed by Kevin Bennet, the show makes ingenious use of its intimate surroundings, engaging the audience from those opening moments right through to the final words. Jennifer Stewart's "first full fledged set design" is a study in simplicity. By enveloping the audience in a room of sheets, Stewart creates the perfect ambience for Bennet's inclusive vision. The "walls" alternately reveal and conceal, providing proximity and distance, immediacy and scope, without a single cumbersome set change.

The heart of the production, however, is the acting. In a cast without a weak link it is dangerous to single anyone out, particularly when the final effect is ensemble. But several of the performances were a revelation to me, the first in a most unexpected place.

I confess I have never thought much about Hamlet's father; I've always considered him more of a dramatic device than a person. He gives the story a nice little ghostly kick-off and serves as the catalyst for the action to follow. But he has never lived for me until tonight. For the first time, I realized the enormity of what has happened. Claudius has killed his own brother and married his wife, stealing her heart and Hamlet's crown. Watching the pain, loss, and betrayal on Michael Fera's fatherly face as young Hamlet discovers what has happened brought tears to my eyes. When contrasted with Fera's hilariously lowbrow gravedigger, the man's talent cannot be ignored.

As Claudius, David Bloom is a delicious blend of cunning and charisma. While we see the evil within, the veneer of charm is sincere enough to prevent us from dismissing Gertrude's attraction too easily. Simon Webb's Polonius is delightful; his parental platitudes land with just the right tone of self-congratulation and I could see Mr. Lee's approving nod. As Laertes, Joshua Reynolds transforms a shallow and vengeful young man into a devoted son, brother, and friend, a man whose mounting losses tragically propel the story to its inevitable conclusion. And as Horatio, Sebastian Kroon personifies a true friend: gentle, solid and compassionate to the end.

The biggest surprise for me was Ophelia, a character I had always regarded with contempt, an addle-brained lovesick airhead whose inability to speak for herself or survive without a man leads to her well-deserved demise. But Julie McIssac taught me different. Her Ophelia brims with life and intelligence - listening to her father, sparring with her brother, wooing her prince. Hamlet's rejection wounds her in a way we feel and when she enters wild-eyed, cradling her fragile blossoms, her madness wounds us. Her sweet, tortured voice climbs and falls through its discordant melodies as her body is tossed by unseen demons from place to place.

One other remarkable accomplishment: the production is almost completely devoid of yelling. One of my many pet peeves in the theatre is that intensity all too often equals volume. This Hamlet was undeniably intense but the depth of its passion was matched by a refreshing breadth of expression.

I am so grateful for this production. The power of a good story well-told was confirmed to me tonight. The opportunity to experience the humanity of these characters and to take their journey is a gift.

In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L'Engle says, "In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure..."

Thank you, Honest Fishmongers, for helping me remember.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Electrifying theatre

Electric Company is the darling of the Vancouver theatre scene. Always creative, frequently innovative, the company has become the poster child for Vancouver’s reputation as a hotbed of “new” theatre. A lot of that attention is well-deserved and as I watched their latest offering Tear the Curtain!, I found myself wishing I had the power to extend their fame across the country and around the world. Work like this could do a lot for Canadian culture. Anyone who cares about the arts in this country should see this show. Anyone struggling to make art would be honoured to be splashed by the ocean of its genius.

The show is a fascinating blend of film and theatre – one of Electric Company’s hallmarks. In a previous production, director Kim Collier used film to re-envision and re-energize Sartre’s existentialist classic No Exit. That show has received productions in several Canadian cities and will soon play San Fransisco’s A Contemporary Theatre. It’s intriguing and inventive and its success is well-deserved. But in my estimation, it has nothing on Tear the Curtain!.

Whereas No Exit uses live-to-film interludes to show us close ups of what is happening in hotel hell, Tear the Curtain! uses actual movie footage, created by the company to be integrated into the live performance. The film footage is fascinating and fully-realized, helped in large part by Peter Allen’s fabulous score. It has all the ambience of the 1920s setting enlivened by incredibly present performances. When I was watching No Exit, I was less interested in the actors on film than in person. But in Tear the Curtain!, the enormous faces of Dawn Petten’s endearing Mavis and Jonathon Young’s enigmatic Alex drew me into their world and made me eager to see the actual actors’ live performance even while I was captivated by them on film.

That’s the most incredible accomplishment of this piece. While some of the dialogue debates the relative superiority of film or theatre (a fitting topic in a show which explores the possible history of the Stanley Theatre’s life as a presenter of both) the production uses each medium to enrich and strengthen the other. The film sequences offer detail and tone that enhances our appreciation for the live, and the live scenes contribute immediacy and vibrancy that invigorates our sense that anything can happen. Furthermore, Tear the Curtain! marries form and content. One of my biggest pet peeves in the contemporary theatre (likely whined about in this blog) is the frequent triumph of style over substance. I have long contended that, in order to be succesful, spectacle must serve story. It does so here, brilliantly.

This interplay is so successful largely because the production is a technical marvel. The integration of film and live theatre is so seamless it seems almost impossible. Each time a door opens on film and someone walks out of it on stage we are again amazed at the artistry. At times when the film images are projected onto the rough walls of the set, the disorienting effect is the perfect paradigm for the mystery of the characters and the complexity of the story.

Part of my delight with the production is its provocative questioning and abundant paradoxes. I have always been intrigued by plays that wrestle with the line between reality and fiction, between truth and madness. This show keeps you on your toes in a way that defies easy answers and short summaries. But although the twists and turns can be disorienting they are never distressing. The journey is such an adventure that we are happy to simply hold on to our seats and keep our eyes wide open, hoping to have the time to evaluate once it’s done.

The show is not just technologically adept. It is thought-provoking, funny, and full of heart. At its core, Tear the Curtain! is an exploration of the central value of the arts in our search to make sense of our world and to find the ending we long for. When Jonathon Young steps forward to deliver a monologue which one could say broke the eighth wall (the fourth dissolved ages before), the transparency of his soul is a gift.

I don’t know who deserves credit for this triumph, exactly. A production like this clearly requires many collaborators pooling their brilliance. Director Kim Collier, along with co-creators Jonathon Young and Kevin Kerr must take the lion’s share. But there is plenty of praise to go around. David Roberts' production design, Brian Johnson's photography direction, Miguel Nunes' sound design, Alex Craig's editing, and Michael Sider's "video wrangling" have all contributed immeasurably. Nancy Bryant's costume design works on stage and on screen to bring these characters lovingly to life. And the actors? Dawn Petten makes us fall in love with her from the first frame, charmingly inhabiting that girl Friday staple of the era without ever seeming stale or derivative. Laura Mennell’s on screen presence is delicious, making it easy to see her as a film star and a kingmaker. James Fagan Tait’s trademark raspy voice is perfect for the elusive and eerie Stanley Lee, and Tom McBeath and Gerard Plunkett are typically terrific in a cast without a weak link. Stage manager Jan Hodgson and her assistant Jennifer Swan also deserve kudos as keeping this machine running smoothly must be their somewhat daunting responsibility.

The role of the Arts Club Theatre and its artistic managing director Bill Millerd (who has an amusing cameo in a film sequence party) cannot be understated. Taking on a project like this, with its enormous scope and demanding technical needs, is not a job for the faint of heart. I can only imagine how Kim and Jon attempted to explain their vision; it had to be a leap of faith that empowered Millerd to produce this show.

We can only hope that other artistic directors will grab some of his courage and invite Electric Company to remount Tear the Curtain! so that it gains the profile it so richly deserves.

Back at it

This blog has lain fallow for many months not because I haven’t been seeing theatre but because seeing a lot of theatre and writing about a lot of theatre, when one has a 70 hour/week job and a young family, is frequently more than I can handle. But I can’t quite face giving up, so this fall - this time of beginning again - marks a new start for Irresistible Theatre.

It’s perhaps fitting that the first entry of my return to blogging celebrates my return to Fringing. I have not attended the Vancouver International Fringe Festival in many years. Living in the suburbs, combined with the intensity of September in the university calendar (particularly when I’m directing) make the Fringe schedule a challenge. But this year, I’m making it happen.

I’ve seen three shows so far, all one person offerings but otherwise very different.

Dirt by Robert Schneider, is a critically acclaimed offering from New York which receives its 100th performance during the VIFF. Christopher Domig plays Sad, an Iraqi immigrant in an unnamed city, who makes his living selling single roses, offering small tokens of romance to men and women on the streets. The roses are a fitting metaphor for Sad’s efforts to make his way – beautiful, fragile, having travelled such great distance that they have lost their defining scent.

Domig’s performance won him the best actor award at the New York fringe and the production claims accolades in Berlin, London, and Edinburgh as well. Although I can appreciate the performer’s talent, I can’t summon the same sympathies for the show. The script is so rambling and circular that it is almost completely lacking in story – the indefinable “what happens next” element that keeps us engaged. Given the show’s advance press and my natural sympathies for the subject, I expected to be riveted. Instead, I was bored.

I’m nervous admitting this. Given Dirt's many admirers, clearly it’s my problem. But I’m going out on a limb here because there might be someone else who felt as I did and who is afraid to speak up. I’m not fond of sacred cows in the theatre; too often I wonder if I’m the only one who noticed that the emperor has no clothes. This might be one of those times. But I can’t be sure since so many reputable others have seen something I did not. Is the show universally adored or are dissenters merely silent? (The woman in front of me who spent most of the performance on her IPhone doesn’t count as she didn’t try nearly as hard as I did to find a way in.)

The second show I saw was Stretch Dog by Vancouver actor/playwright Rob Olguin. Olguin has expanded his MFA solo project show into a one act revelation of fear and loathing, a rant about the trials of making a living as an actor, a lament about the incredible tensions theatre provides for a husband and new father. The writing is clever and filled with humour, weaving three independent stories together into a map of this man’s halting journey. The stories are both delightfully original and painfully familiar, signposts of self-discovery as recognizable as the faceless agent holding the actor’s future in his hands. The piece showcases Olguin’s physical and emotional flexibility, with particularly satisfying moments of complete vulnerability.

Confessions of a Paperboy is a reasonably well-known Canadian script, presented at this year’s Fringe by Vancouver newcomer Giovanni Mocibob. As ten-year-old paperboy, Christopher Columbus, Mocibob exudes energy and innocence not often found in someone midway through his third decade. The script and the performer are charming, drawing us into life in Calgary in the 70s, before big news companies replaced paperboys on bicycles with papermen in station wagons. Playing a range of customers as well as Christopher’s family, Mocibob chooses subtle changes of voice and manner to effectively communicate their pain and yearning. The set is more fully realized than many at the Fringe, testament to its transplant from an earlier mounting in Rosebud, Alberta, and it’s white picket fencing is mostly successful. Director Paul F. Muir has skillfully adapted the show to Pacific Theatre’s two-sided space.

I intended to post this two weeks ago but life interfered. It also got in the way of my hopes to see more at this year’s Fringe Festival but I am confident that next year I’ll head back.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Courageous Is

Maybe I got what I asked for. I wanted story and this week I saw a play that had two.

The first act of Michael Healey's Courageous, now receiving its world premiere at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre, is about Tom, a devout Catholic marriage commissioner who refuses to marry a gay couple because it goes against his faith, despite the fact that he himself is gay.

The second act takes up the story of a minor character in the first act, a white trash child-man named Todd who marries his equally juvenile and potty-mouthed girlfriend at the very beginning of the play. A straight couple that seems doomed for failure and oblivious to the meaning, privilege, and responsibility of marriage.

On the surface, the stories are related only in that six-degrees-of-separation kind of way. But thematically, they are kissing cousins and unraveling the relationship is half the fun of a very fun evening.

It's a play I wish I could see again. Partly to watch for the connections between the acts with the knowledge gleaned from having seen both, partly so I can write down more of the clever funny lines, and partly so that I can hear and ponder the intricacies of the arguments about faith and behaviour. And there are many.

In one particularly satisfying scene, Tom and Brian (the lawyer he refused to marry) are waiting for the adjudicator at the human rights tribunal that is hearing Brian's complaint. They suspect they have been left alone to see if they can work out their differences and they certainly try. Tom's passionate and intelligent articulation of his faith - how and why it matters - could spur a conversion. His willingness to turn the other cheek, and his understanding of the power and importance of forgiveness, give substance to his assertion that we have lots of opportunities every day to "behave like a Christian".

Todd's story is completely different. Married young, this skater-dude is now a jobless father whose approach to life can be summed up by the fact that he never does something until he has been asked four times, which is his way of determining if it's worth doing. When his wife Tammy nags him to get a job (four times, of course) he finally does and that's when things truly get complicated.

The acts have completely different protagonists and conflicts; they also use a different theatrical style. While Act I is straightforward realism, the events of Act II are framed - and frequently interrupted - by Todd's narration, a narration that not only tells the story but demands the audience pay attention to the lessons he is learning from his life. Act II begins with Todd commenting on the first act, ("That was harsh, eh?")and then capsulizing the typical approach to life in two questions: "What should I do?" and "Am I happy?" As he finally comes of age he discovers that the first question might be a lot more important than the second.

En route to self-discovery, Todd's life is affected and changed by Christians. His boss is a born-again recovering alcoholic and his Somali neighbor and co-worker "gets religion" under the boss's guidance. When those two apparently kidnap Todd and Tammy's daughter, we are afraid for her safety and their sanity. But the revelation that they have taken the baby to be baptized - and the equally surprising discovery that Tammy regards the action as a beautiful gift - shape Todd's life and the conclusion of the play.

I'm still working through the connections between the acts, still wondering why Michael Healey structured Courageous this way, still debating whether it was the right or best choice.

All I know for sure is that this is my favourite kind of play - one that makes you laugh and makes you think, one that makes you want to write down things the characters say and post them on your wall. Or at least think about them some more.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

PuShing My Buttons

I’ve been thinking a lot about contemporary theatre these days. No, that’s not an event, really. But In the last two weeks I have seen seven shows that are “new”, mostly as part of Vancouver’s much-lauded PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

I love PuSh. I love the opportunity to see shows from around the world, to, in a small way, put my finger on the pulse of the body of contemporary theatre. I love the impetus for local groups to create works that are innovative and unusual. I love the energy of walking into a show knowing that the promo blurb didn’t really prepare me for what’s about to happen, that it couldn’t because the performance will be indescribable. I love the way it makes me think about my art form and expand my ideas of what theatre is. I love the idea of this Festival and the respect and enthusiasm it generates in and about Vancouver artists.

But, true to my nature, I also hate PuSh. I hate the complete focus on works that are strange and experimental. I hate the celebration of what’s offensive in the name of art (exemplified by this year’s poster child, Jerk). I hate the lack of dialogue and relationship. I hate the almost total absence of story.

And that’s the crux of the matter for me. Where have all the stories gone? If PuSh is a true and accurate representation of contemporary world theatre, is story completely passé? None of the shows I saw at PuSh (nor, as near as I can tell, any of the shows I did not see) were primarily concerned with story, with the exception of The Edward Curtis Project. (Interestingly, the promotional paragraph in the PuSh program emphasizes Edward Curtis’s interdisciplinary and political nature and does not even hint at the centrality of a human story.)

There were elements of story, certainly. In Nevermore, the story is fairly clear and undeniably important. But it isn’t central. The spectacular images and evocative music created by the genius team of Jonathan Christenson and Brette Gerecke will live on in my mind for years. But Poe’s life provides inspiration and context for those elements rather than a traditional linear narrative.

With Kamp, we take the story of the holocaust in with us. And given the unrelenting horror of each day in the concentration camps, and the inescapable reality that the prisoners suffered, the show is justifiably and movingly not linear.

In The Passion of Joan of Arc, story exists in our minds (because most are familiar with the basics of her tale) and in the projected lines of dialogue from the original silent film. So there is a sort of story and certainly a linear progression towards Joan’s inevitable death. But spectacle, not story, rules.

Poetics: A Ballet Brut teases us with the potential of story, as it teases us with the potential of relationship. But none of the potential of this piece is fully realized and the lack of clear structure and meaning appears carefully calculated, a kind of up-your-nose self-consciousness that likely earned them their reputation as “the most buzzed about new troupe on the New York avant-garde scene.” The fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable piece involving the “secret dancers”, along with the delightfully out of place pink tutu-clad ballerina, come close to providing context and meaning, however undefined. But it is too little, too late, and too overshadowed by a series of numbers that dare us to say the emperor has no clothes.

The sensory overload of White Cabin was remarkable. Intriguing, engaging, and artistic, the creativity and chaos of the production land it at the top of my “shows I never want to stage manage” list. But it isn’t about story. There is a charming sequence in the middle in which the two male performers exchange a series of sumo-wrestler style belly bumps. The audience was completely enchanted, on the edge of their seats, chuckling appreciatively. I think the reason this sequence is so compelling is that it was one of the few times when we saw the “characters” interact, and as humans we are wired to long for relationship.

The whole experience of PuSh has placed me in a bit of a personal quandary. I love story. As an undergrad, I was a TA in the English Department and I remember telling people that “theatre has my body, but English has my heart”. My fundamental reason for doing theatre is because it enables us to literally bring stories to life.

But I also love spectacle. I love theatre that can’t be anything else, theatre that tells the story by immersing us in experiences and images that could never be captured in a book or on film. To sacrifice the technical artistry of light, set, costumes, and sound on the altar of “the well-made play” would be a great tragedy. But to tell a great tragedy – or a great comedy or drama – is a privilege that cannot be abandoned in pursuit of what’s “cool”.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Passionate About The Passion Project

I’m not sure what happened.

When I entered the theatre, I liked what I saw. More art installation than set, the space was filled with cold pipes and thick ropes, rough wood and primitive hooks. The lighting was evocative. In the corner was a stool. On the floor outside the main cage of screens, laid a square of light with a simply drawn heart. When the show began, the frames became screens of varying sizes onto which were projected black and white film images. The hanging wood and bare floor received lines of projected type in several languages.

I was interested, then intrigued, then involved, then absorbed. At some point, my eyes filled with tears. When it was over, I didn’t want to move. Or talk.

The show is called The Passion Project and it is a marvel of interdisciplinary genius. Using portions of three versions of Carl Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc as its starting point, The Passion Project combines film, music, commentary, text, and live performance, embedding them in a “set” that is really an interactive gallery installation.

What fascinates me most is that I am not sure which aspect – which art – got me. And I don’t really care. All I know is that I saw something really special tonight. Thank you to Reid Farrington and Laura K. Nicoll; Ron Reed, and Pacific Theatre.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Hate You, You're Infuriating, Don't Change (with apologies to DiPietro and Roberts)

I recently faced a fact. As a director, as soon as the show opens, I hate theatre.

I understand why this is so. Whereas, during the rehearsal process the work is dynamic and ever-changing, opening night means my part in the show's growth is effectively over. I have no power to continue to shape it, no mandate to help it improve. It exists outside of me, beyond my control and I mourn that loss. My husband calls it my post-partum depression.

I also understand that saying I hate theatre is at best only part of the truth. That "hate" comes out of an enormous, obsessive love. If I didn't want the art to be great and the show to be successful, I could happily walk away on opening, content that the rehearsal process was satisfying.

Instead, my focus shifts and I am painfully aware of the difficult things -the hateful things - about this art.

1. It requires an audience. "Without you, all we have is a rehearsal." The audience doesn't merely feed the actors, artistically and literally. When we pour hearts and souls into creating theatre, we are arrogant and foolish enough to believe that the show can feed the audience. So if people don't come, it's like we have prepared a marvelous dinner party and no one shows. Babette's Feast gone to waste. I hate that.

2. It is ephemeral. The last show I directed was dedicated to a dear friend who died earlier this year. I invited her husband to see the show, eager that he should experience this tribute, longing to share our mutual pain at her passing. I contacted him and arranged for tickets. But after the show closed, I discovered that I neglected to confirm with him and he did not come. There is nothing to be done. He can't catch the video, or wait for the remount. The show is over. Forever. I hate that.

3. It needs support. I’m not talking about finances here, though that is certainly true. Theatre also needs people who view the work with loving eyes. I am an intensely critical person and I believe passionately in the importance of criticism in improving theatre. I welcome others to engage with the work I create. Of course, ideally, I want them to like it. But mostly I want them to care, to be willing to ask why and to help me make better choices in the future. Unfortunately, some audience members bring a spirit of negativity that can be destructive to the work itself and to my view of the work. I hate that.

I have often said that one of the few things I know about relationships is that the things you most hate about someone are the flip side of the things you most love. So we need to be careful about changing our spouses; we might lose something that was what attracted us to them in the first place.

Apparently, the same can be said of my relationship with theatre. Theatre needs an audience because it is a communal art. Every person in that room is sharing an experience and shaping that art. Because theatre is live, audience members are participants, not consumers. That’s why Daniel MacIvor compares it to church. I love that.

Theatre’s final repository is the hearts and minds of its audience. It’s hard not to have something tangible at the end of a show, to feel like there’s nothing left. But all the best things in life exist in our hearts and minds. To use another relationship metaphor, it reminds me of whining to a friend when I was planning my wedding. All this effort, all this time, all this money, going into a wedding and when it’s over you have nothing to show for it. And she said, “just a marriage”. I love that.

It really is irritating that theatre – and the arts in general – need positive energy. It seems that we spend a lot of time telling ourselves, and anyone else who will listen, that the arts matter. Next week, there will be another Wrecking Ball event in Vancouver to try to convince politicians. That’s hard. But when people do care, when those who understand why the arts matter get together, it is incredibly exciting. And when their collective positive energy infects others and reverses the negativity, it’s revolutionary. I love that.

Embrace the ambivalence.